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Your Homeland: A 'National Sacrifice Area'

Citing national security needs, the Pentagon is seeking exemptions from many environmental regulations. Draft legislation prepared by the Pentagon states that the military "shall not place the conservation of public lands, or the preservation or recovery of endangered species found on military lands, above the need to ensure that soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines" receive the combat training they need.

For perspective on this issue, we spoke with Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.. He served as a senior policy advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Energy from 1993-99, and was the principal investigator for the U.S. senate committee on governmental affairs.



How do you view the Pentagon's request to override an array of environmental measures?

Robert Alvarez: Well, I see it as a first step towards trying to achieve a blanket exemption by the defense establishment of the United States from complying with environmental statutes.

But what are the implications in terms of any serious threat to the environment?

Alvarez: I think it's a very dangerous precedent because it creates a situation where the military is allowed to engage in practices that threaten our health and environment with impunity. And this is a kind of mindset or policy, rather, that the Russian, the Soviet Union itself adhered to for many decades with very tragic consequences.

What worries me the most about this is whether this policy is going to be extended not only to the Defense Department, but to the Energy Department, which has been responsible for making thousands of nuclear weapons over more than half a century. The Energy Department, as a result of making all these weapons, has created some of the most contaminated areas in the western hemisphere. And we're talking about profound levels of contamination which pose significant risks over long periods of time to important drinking water supplies such as the Columbia River, the drinking water supply for the southeastern United States, and other such locations.

So you're saying that a precedent is being set here?

Alvarez: That's correct. What I'm concerned about is that this could become what is in Washington D.C. is euphemistically called "the camel's nose in the tent," where under the rationale of impairing our ability to train our troops to be responsive to these new threats that we now face in the post Cold War world, that we then extend these exemptions to deal with our legacy wastes which essentially sets the stage for what I call a "national sacrifice area approach." In other words, this implies that over time if this policy is expanded, it just simply means that the U.S. government is going to be able to write off large areas of land, bodies of water, and the people that are dependent on them, just as the Soviet Union has.

Does this harken back to policies of the Reagan administration?

Alvarez: Well, during the Reagan administration we were under certainly a different situation in terms of how the world is structured. At that time the Cold War was rekindled during the course of the Reagan administration there was a substantial both conventional and nuclear arms buildup, and the mindset was that complying with environmental laws would be obstacles to achieving these military and political objectives. So what the Reagan administration did was to construct policies that effectively exempted the military establishment from obeying environmental laws, which were subsequently overturned in the courts and clarified explicitly by the Congress in later years.

And you believe that this administration is following the Reagan model, saying that it can't achieve its military objectives and follow environmental regulations at the same time.

Alvarez: The Energy Department which, as I mentioned, has been making nuclear weapons or made nuclear weapons, rather, for many years, is starting to set the stage for this "national sacrifice zone" approach, in that it has made a declaration that it no longer is going to vitrify or render into a glass form 75 percent of its most dangerous high-level radioactive waste, which suggests they're going to leave this material behind, in place. This is very much akin to what the Russians have been doing.

And you see this as a budget matter too?

Alvarez: The mindset that's at work here is I think one where the idea of having to spend money to do things to clean up the environment comes out of the same account that you're using to pay for the manufacture of weapons is somehow antithetical to the mindset of the people who are currently running this government.

But does the Pentagon need Congress to give it exemptions to environmental regulations? The New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has the authority to invoke these exemptions.

Alvarez: I don't believe that that is a correct assumption because Congress enacted federal legislation over a period of many years which explicitly requires the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, other national defense-related agencies to be subject to compliance to the same environmental laws as the private sector. And these laws have to be changed in order for such policies to actually be implemented.

Now, having said that, this administration can choose to ignore these laws and issue policy dicta that orders the various elements of the military to ignore compliance. That then leaves it up to legal challenge and to challenge by the Congress.

Do you believe the Pentagon has a point, that it's necessary to forgo environmental needs to ensure they can properly train soldiers?

Alvarez: I don't know what the necessity of it is because we've been able to train and deploy and manufacture and carry out our national security functions for the last, at least in terms of the defense department, for the last 15 years without too much problem with respect to compliance with environmental laws. Rather what I see going on here is an attempt to try to avoid having to spend money necessary to do things such as environmental compliance and clean-up of legacy waste which they would rather free up to do other things.

Thanks very much for that perspective.

Alvarez: You're very welcome.

Sharon Basco is executive producer of TomPaine.com.

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